The Temple of Ptah at Karnak in Luxor, Egypt

The Temple of Ptah at Karnak in Luxor, Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

Looking through the doorways to the sanctuary of Ptah in the Temple of Ptah at Karnak

Ptah is a very ancient Egyptian god evidenced from at least the Old Kingdom where his cult was located in the Memphis region. At Karnak in Luxor (ancient Thebes), his temple consists of three interconnecting sanctuaries that are, together with Ptah, consecrated to his Memphite triad, which also included Sekhmet and Nefertum. The sanctuaries are preceded by a small portico of two columns and a pylon in the name of Tuthmosis III, who built the core of the temple. It is oriented west-east, like the Temple of Amun. The temple was built on the site of an earlier temple of the Middle Kingdom in wood and brick that was restored by Shabaka during the 25th Dynasty and by the Ptolemies and Romans. Interestingly, the Ptolemies did not replace the earlier royal cartouches with their own, but actually repaired damaged and missing sections with the names of the original builders. The Temple is located on the northern perimeter of the Temple of Amun, just inside the gate leading to the Montu precinct.

The Fifth Gateway in the Temple of Ptah at Karnak, showing a

This was not the easiest temple ever excavated at Karnak, for unusual reasons. In 1900 when G. Legran began the work, his Egyptian laborers were reluctant. They feared this place, where seven small children had been swallowed up by a cave-in, causing its name locally to be known as the "infants' grave. They thought that this must be the den of the ghoul, the ogress that must have eaten them, for their bodies were never recovered. Therefore, to excavate here was to attack the ogress in her very lair, and she was said to be guarded in the north of the temple by a row of blacks who protected her from any who came near. In that precise location, Legrain discovered a statue of Djehuty made from black granite. Legrain tells us that:

"In Karnak confidence was restored with the departure of Djehuty (the statue was shipped off to Cairo). In the opinion of the peasants, by discovering the black statue I had quite simply made the guardian genie of the temple of Ptah my prisoner, and what's more, by copying and translating the few lines of hieroglyphs carved there, I had made myself the master of the magic grimoire, which would compel the surrender of the children eaters".

Interestingly, one must also keep in mind that Sekhmet, Ptah's consort, was the sated devourer of blood who would destroy all humanity in her divesting fury, if allowed to do so.

There were five gateways added at a later date to this small temple. A large granite stela in the name of Tuthmosis III was found between the fourth and fifth gates, with the following text:

"My majesty commands that there be built the temple of Ptah-south-of-his wall, in Thebes, which is a station .... of my father Amun-Ra, lord of Thebes... Lo, my majesty found this temple built of brick and wooden columns and its doorway of wood, beginning to go to ruin. My majesty commands to stretch the cord upon this temple anew, erected of fine white sandstone, and the walls around it of brick, as a work enduring for eternity. My majesty erected for it doors of new cedar of the best of the terraces [Lebanon], mounted with Asiatic copper... I overlaid for him his great seat with electrum of the best of the countries. All vessels were of gold and silver, and every splendid costly stone, clothing of fine linen, white linen... to perform his pleasing ceremonies at the feasts of the beginning of the season."

There were actually seven total doorways that provided access to the sanctuary of Ptah. While the first two doorways are constructed to have a lintel, the following three that precede the pylon are of the "broken lintel" variety topped by a cornice and a torus. On the exterior and interior facades of the first doorway, which crosses an enclosure of baked bricks, are the cartouches of Ptolemy VI, while on the interior facades of the passage are those of Ptolemy XI and Ptolemy XIII. In the jambs of this doorway is a depiction of Nefertum bearing a lotus feather topped with two long feathers on her head. Two menat counterweights also fall out of this.

Floorplan of the temple of Ptah at Karnak

The second and fourth doorways are in the name of Shabaka, though his cartouches were later hammered out. The third doorway is in the name of Ptolemy XIII, and consists of two engaged columns. The fifth doorway serves as an entrance to a portico of four composite columns of Ptolemy III. The columns are very elegant, with a height of about 5.25 meters, while the space between the torus framing the doorway measures about half of this. The doorway leading to the portico actually bears the titles of Tuthmosis III. On the gate with the broken lintel ascribed to Ptolemy III, as well as the doorpost of the pylon doorway beyond, the king wears the white crown and makes a gesture of entering the sanctuary after being purified four times. On the north, the king is wearing the red crown.

Another view of the fifth Gateway in the Temple of Ptah showing a

The sixth door, all the way in the back, crosses through the pylon, and beyond a small altar makes up the seventh doorway, which opens directly onto the central sanctuary where the statue of Ptah is located.

South Wing of the Pylon, East Facade - Ptolemy IV advancing towards Hathor

Inside of the pylon, on its south wing of the east facade, is a door leading to a little chamber that has a second doorway leading out to the south. The cartouches on the jambs of this first door are in the name of Ptolemy IV, heir of the god Euergetes. On the lintel, the king makes offerings to a seated Ptah. There is a large scene to the right, where Ptolemy IV advances toward Hathor. Beyond this doorway on the south wall of the main chamber, there is a scene sculpted in light sunk relief. To the right, above the was scepter of Amun, are four vertical lines of an inscription that Mariette saw in its complete state, but which Legrain found nothing but the bottom half by the time he explored the temple. The part that was lost allowed historians to date the Ptah feast mentioned here as having taken place two months after Horemheb's coronation, which coincided with the Beautiful Feast of the Valley at Luxor. Oddly, however, the cartouche here seems to have been usurped by Horemheb and the bas-reliefs in no way resemble those styled during his reign. In this scene, behind Amun, "Ptah, lord of Ma'at, king of the Two Lands, beautiful of countenance in Thebes" stands on the pedestal of Ma'at, with his head tightly bound in a blue lapis lazuli headdress. His two hands emerge from his wrapped body holding the sheath that ends in the djed pillar, from which the was scepter emerges. Behind Ptah, Khonsu-in-Thebes-Neferhotep is wearing the crown-prince's braid, which passes under his diadem. He holds in his hands a number of different scepters, including the djed pillar, the was scepter, the ankh, the hek crosier and the nekhakha scepter. He wears the menat necklace with its distinctive counterweight.

North Wing of the Pylon, East Facade With scenes of Ptolemy IV

Further along this wall towards the east, another scene on the south wall depicts the king, wearing the blue helmet, making an offering of two vessels of wine. Following him is his ka, which wears the king's Horus name, "Mighty Bull Appearing in Thebes", on its head. The ka also holds in his right hand a long cane topped by a bust of the pharaoh and with his left hand he holds the key of life and the feather of Ma'at.

On the other side of this chamber on the north wing of the pylon, on the interior of the doorway, the restorations completed by Ptolemy III in this part of the building are mentioned. The interior facade of the doorway is sloped and here we find the cartouches of Tuthmosis III, whereas the wall of the north wing of the pylon is vertical and carved with the cartouches of Ptolemy IV. Like on the south wing of the pylon, the north wing also has an inner chamber and above the small doorway of this chamber are found two scenes of worship in the name of Ptolemy IV. On the bottom register the king, followed by Arsinoe, worships Ptah four times. Here, Ptah stands in his naos followed by Hathor. On the upper register, the king offers Ma'at to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu. To the right of this scene are stairs that lead to the roof of the pylon and the corner of the north wall.

North Wall of the first chambr with offering of cosmetics to Ptah, Hathor and Imhotep

Further around on the north wall of the chamber is a scene where Ptolemy IV offers a statuette of a "sphinx bearing the cosmetics" to Ptah, who is standing in his naos and holding the was, the ankh and the djed in his hands. Hathor stands behind him, followed by Imhotep, son of Ptah. The famous Imhotep, architect of the Old Kingdom Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara and also a physician, was deified in the Ptolemaic Period and merged with the Greek Asclepios. Behind Imhotep, under the portico's architrave, is a text of three vertical lines in the name of Tuthmosis III which read:

"To his father Ptah, beautiful of countenance, lord of the Two Lands... He built the House of Ptah anew in fine white sandstone, the door panels of cedar from the best of terraces [Lebanon], more beautiful than it was before...When My Majesty found this house built of bricks."

This text is very similar to that found between the fourth and fifth doors of this temple. Here, under the portico and above a small niche, is a bas-relief that is very similar to that located on the opposite south facade, representing Tuthmosis III followed by his ka.

A column and the alter in the first chamber in the Temple of Ptah at Karnak

Just in front of the sanctuary of Ptah are two large columns. They have a base diameter of about 106 centimeters with a shaft that measures some 3.5 meters tall. They measure about 4.02 meters from the base to the abacus.

In the sanctuary itself is a splendid statue of Ptah (though headless) carved from a monolithic block of black granite in such a way that a pink vein of stone starts from the right and and crosses the chest. Ptah holds in his hands the same scepters as in his representation in the bas reliefs. These include the was, which emerges from a long sheath ending in the djed. The swaddled feet of the statue are massive, and one might also note the detail of the user necklace. Before Ptah, on the same pedestal, is the bottom part of a kneeling figure.

The famous statue of Sekhmet in her santuary in the Temple of Ptah at Karnak

To the south of the sanctuary of Ptah is that of Sekhmet. The statue of her, made of black granite, was found in many pieces by Legrain and was pieced back together and re-erected in its original site in the south chapel, just below a small orifice installed in a paving stone of the roof, through which moonlight filters on certain nights directly on the statue's head. The statue is striking for its slender body and narrow thighs that contrast with the massive head that wears a flattened disk with raised uraeus. She holds the wadj scepter with the flowering lotus and the ankh of life in her hands.

The back, outside wall of the temple is also noteworthy. Here, at two different levels going from left to right, are a representation of Ptah in light relief, whose head must have been sculpted on an a stone that is now missing, and also one of Hathor, followed by two deified scribes from the Old and New Kingdom. One is Imhotep, son of Ptah while the other scribe is Amenhotep, son of Hapi. Imhotep, who wears only a short loincloth and a pectoral, holds the was of the gods in his hand. Amenhotep, who wears a long robe held up by a suspender, carries the palette and scroll of the scribe. In front of Hathor is a very small Horus the child (Harpocrates of the Greeks). Here, the Horus child also bears the title of smatawi, "binding of the Two Lands".


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
History of Egyptian Architecture, A (The Empire (the New Kingdom) From the Eighteenth Dynasty to the End of the Twentieth Dynasty 1580-1085 B.C. Badawy, Alexander 1968 University of California Press LCCC A5-4746
Luxor, Karnak and the Theban Temples Siliotti, Alberto 2002 American University In Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 641 1
Temples of Karnak, The de Lubicz, R. A. Schwaller 1999 Inner Tradition ISBN 0-89281-712-7
Thebes in Egypt: A Guide to the Tombs and Temples of Ancient Luxor Strudwick, Nigel & Helen 1999 Cornell University Press ISBN 0 8014 8616 5


Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011

The Temple of Ptah at Karnak in Luxor, Egypt
by Jimmy Dunn